The Small Pleasures of St. Hilaire-en-Brens

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Small Pleasures of St. Hilaire-en-Brens

On a recent trip through France, friends and I made the fortunate decision to rest for a few days in the small, scenic village of St. Hilaire-en-Brens. Located just 40 minutes from the Saint Exupery Airport in Lyon, in the heart of the Hautes-Rhone region, this hilltop village was a perfect last stop in our own tour de France. From here we were able to take short, easy side trips to the medieval town of Cremieu, the elegant city of Annecy, and historic Vieux Lyon.

Not that it was easy to leave the comfortable surroundings of our B&B, aptly named Le St.-Hilaire. From the moment of arrival, we felt an easy comfort with the warm hospitality provided by our hosts, a charming English-French couple named Stephanie and Thierry.

“Let us know if you’d like to join us for dinner,” Stephanie said, as she showed us to our room. “We love it when our B&B guests eat with us. It makes it more fun for everybody.”

On weekdays, Stephanie and Thierry serve dinner in their large dining room overlooking the town square, with long views to Mont Blanc. For a very reasonable price, guests can enjoy Stephanie’s cooking, featuring simple, regional favourites.

“We will join you for sure!” I said. This left just enough time for a swim in their gorgeous swimming pool. After a quick dip, I reclined in one of the elegant deck chairs and… z-z-z-z!

Later, a small handful of guests drifted downstairs. Thierry handed each of us a glass of cool, crisp sparkling wine as we nibbled on hors d’oeuvres. Before long, Stephanie called us to the table where we enjoyed a leisurely meal comprised of green salad, cassoulet, local cheeses and a homemade apple tart with caramel sauce and ice cream. The food, almost all made in house, was delicious and plentiful, and the conversation flowed as readily as the local wine.

After a deep sleep in our lovely quiet room overlooking the pool, we rose early and went down for continental breakfast and steaming bowls of café au lait. Thus fortified, we headed off on the short ten-minute drive to Cremieu.

IMG 6958 copyCremieu dates back to the 13th century, when it was built around a Benedictine priory and a castle, the remains of which can be seen today. Known also for the high ramparts that still protect the town, Cremieu is a perfect consolidation of ancient history with a fascinating, lively town of today. People inhabit medieval houses with ornately carved windows and doors. I loved the criss-cross of old streets and the 15th-century covered market where an antique fair was held on the day of our visit.

The day still young, we decided to continue to Lyon, France’s second largest city. Our focus was small however, as we were especially interested in the old quarter. We found Vieux Lyon and explored its labyrinthine streets. Eventually, the throngs of people packed into these narrow streets inspired us to seek open space, and so it was on the Place Bellecour at the L’Espace Brasserie where we sat to people-watch while enjoying a glass of rosé and a Salade Lyonnaise. (When in Lyon…!) I loved the combination of bright frisee, crisp bacon, soft poached eggs and one of the loveliest warm dressings I have tasted. Was it because the dressing was made by softening shallots in bacon fat before adding dijon and a splash of vinegar? Whatever the reason, I reveled in the blend of warm and cool, rich and fresh… with a bustling French square as the backdrop.

Back at Le St. Hilaire that evening, we were content to sit poolside, sip rosé and nibble on the remains of a baguette from earlier in the day.

On our last day in the region, we ventured a little further to Annecy, an elegant resort town nestled between Lake Annecy and the French Alps, 35 kilometers south of Geneva. Sometimes called the “Pearl of the Alps,” Annecy is famous for its serene beauty. We walked around the lake, strolled beside beautiful canals, and explored passageways in the Old Town. Were we in France, Venice or Switzerland? All these histories and cultures seemed to converge in this special place.   

After one last night at Le St. Hilaire enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Stephanie and Thierry, we made the quick and easy trip to the airport and headed for home, fully refreshed and deeply satisfied with the last leg of our personal tour de France.